On the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s passing, I find it appropriate to exhume from the Secret Whatever Archives this essay, entitled “Holden Caulfield in Middle Age” (also available in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which you should buy, damn you). Enjoy.
July 18, 2001
Holden Caulfield turned 50 this last week, and if the imaginary, fictional world in which he lives has any parallel with ours, right about now, he’s got a kid who is now the age Holden was in The Catcher in the Rye, and that kid is just driving him nuts. Wouldn’t that be a kick.
I never got Holden Caulfield anyway. This partially due to having my own reading tastes bend towards science fiction as a teen rather than the genre of Alienated Teen Literature, of which Catcher is, of course, the classic. If you were going to give me a teenage hero, give me Heinlein’s Starman Jones: He traveled the galaxy and memorized entire books of log tables and became Captain of a starship (for procedural reasons, granted). All Holden did was bitch, bitch, bitch. Put Holden at the controls of a starship and he’d implode from stress. Not my hero, thanks.
(Actually, if you’re going to give me a teenage hero, give me Joan of Arc. There’s an achiever for you: Kicks English tail and saves France, despite suffering from profound schizophrenia (Shaw argues that the voices were an expression of the “Evolutionary Appetite,” but in truth, there’s no reason they couldn’t be both). Thank God she wasn’t born in the 20th century; they would have medicated her ass into catatonia, and then the Germans would have been able to roll right over the French forces at the start of WWII! Hmmmmm.)
But it’s also partially due to the nature of Holden, and my own nature as well. Holden is justly famous in the literary pantheon as being the first major teenage literary character to be allowed to note that the world was a tremendously screwed up place, and to have an intellectually appropriate response to that fact. All the other literary teens of the age were solving low-grade mysteries or having boy’s own adventures or what not, and, golly, they were always polite and respectful to their elders. Holden was the proverbial turd in that punchbowl, and arriving as he did in the early 50s, just in time for rock n’ roll and the first mass teen market, he offered the blueprint and pathology for teenage sullenness that’s still fervently followed to this day (although, admittedly, the tattoos and piercings these days are a new touch).
However, I was not especially pained as a teen, and all attempts in that direction ended up as sort of twee, rather than genuinely dark and isolating. It was too bad, really, since I was all set up to accept Holden as a soul mate. I mean, I went to boarding school, I was somewhat sensitive, I had all that bundled up energy of wanting to change the world and not knowing quite how to do it. But I just didn’t have that certain something — mistrust of society, desire for someone to encapsulate all my inexpressible teenage emotions, basically suspicious and snotty nature, or whatever — that would make me go cookoo for Caulfield. I suppose it’s a shortcoming. I failed angst in high school. They let me graduate anyway.
Fact is, I liked neither Holden nor the book. One can recognize the book has a certain literary merit without needing to like the thing, of course. But it’s more to the point to say that Holden has a certain fundamental passivity that I dislike — the desire for people and things to be different without the accompanying acceptance of personal responsibility to effect those changes. To go back to Heinlein and his juvy novels, his teenage characters are not very big on internal lives, but they’re also the sort who go out, do things, fail, do things again, and eventually get it right. Holden merely wishes, ultimately a man of inaction. He’s a failure — a particularly attractive failure if you’re of a certain age and disposition, admittedly, but a failure nonetheless. I remember reading the book as a teen and being irritated with Holden for that reason; I couldn’t see why he required any sympathy from me, or why I should empathize with him.
It’s been a fortunate thing that Salinger has sat back and rested on his increasingly thorny laurels for the last several decades, because in doing so he’s spared us inevitable Catcher sequel, in which we learn whatever happened to that freaky Caulfield kid. Here’s what I think. After a certain amount of time faking being deprogrammed, Holden goes to Brown and after graduation eventually gets a job at an ad firm, where, thanks to his ability to pitch products to “the kids,” he does very well. He gets married, has a couple of kids, gets divorced, becomes a high-functioning alcoholic but is nevertheless eased towards the door with a generous buyout, and after that — well, after that, who cares? Sooner or later, the rest of one’s life becomes a coda.
Big Holden fans will no doubt be upset with the life of hypocritical mediocrity I’ve provided for their anti-hero, but really, unless he committed suicide shortly after the end of the novel (not at all unlikely, given his creator’s literary tendencies), he has to have caved. He was too passive to do otherwise. No Holden fan would be at all satisfied with this, of course — which may be one of the reasons Salinger packed it in. It’s better for everyone involved if Holden’s life coda begins before he’s out of his teens. Everyone walks away happy, except, of course, for Holden himself. But that’s as it should be.